Plans for free fairs came to a screeching halt after lawmakers, uh, just sorta checked in with relevant parties.
Plans for free fairs came to a screeching halt after lawmakers, uh, just sorta checked in with relevant parties. 400tmax/Getty Images

Free tickets to Washington State Fairs and free parking at Washington State Parks ranked among the most highly coveted items in the $63.4 billion supplemental budget proposed by Senate Democrats.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig called the yearlong programs "popular," and said he'd received "supportive communication from constituents" after the news of the plan broke in a February 23 press release from Christine Rolfes, the chief budget negotiator for the Senate Dems.

Indeed, after initially dismissing the free passes as an empty gesture, Seattle real estate developer Danny Westneat metaphorically dropped to his knees and begged for them in his popular column in The Seattle Times, saying, "(please send me one)."

In press conferences later on, Democratic Senate leadership pointed to the freebies as a boon to the middle class, a partial rejoinder to Republican attacks against Democrats spending a bunch of one-time federal money on homeless shelters and social services rather than on permanent cuts to property taxes. The caucus touted the programs as a gift to families emerging from a long pandemic, an "incentive" to get outside and enjoy life.

But the 2022 legislative session has come and gone, and so has the dream of free tickets to activities that contain the word "state" in them. What happened? Why couldn't lawmakers piece together a deal that would work for the parks, the fairs, and the fun-loving people of Washington??????

It sounds like they didn't nail down the details before they announced the plan.

Youre still going to need to shell out $30 per year to enjoy near unlimited access to the most beautiful places in the world.
You're still going to need to shell out $30 per year to enjoy near unlimited access to the most beautiful places in the world. RS

Billig, who said passing out free passes to parks and fairs wasn't his idea, said providing the tickets wasn't "quite as easy as it seemed."

In a Feb 26 letter to state budget negotiators on both sides of the aisle, State Parks and Recreation Commission Acting Director Don Hoch thanked lawmakers for their "time and attention" to the Parks budget but listed several concerns with the idea of giving out free Discover Passes.

Those concerns included...

  • The potential for reduced sales
  • The inability to refund 2023 Discover Passes that people already purchased
  • A lack of adequate funding in the proposal (Parks took in $35.1 million in Discover Passes in 2021, but the Senate only budgeted $31 million for the program)
  • The high probability of pissing off outside vendors who sell passes for a fee
  • The headache of dealing with the sort of existential question of why the state would issue a free pass rather than just no pass at all
  • Worries about declining future sales (if you give a Danny a cookie...)
  • A fear that park staff would bear the brunt of the grumbling once pass fees kicked back in the following year

  • Hoch went on to "recognize the sentiment and good will behind the budget amendment" and offered to work with budget writers to come up with some solutions. He then casually mentioned a $400 million park maintenance backlog that could use some attention, budget-wise, as well. Ahem.

    A similar story played out with the people over at the Washington State Fairs Association.

    In an email, Washington State Fairs Association Board President Andrea Thayer said the Fairs' lobbyist connected with Senate staff about the proposal at the "initial Senate committee stage" but couldn't remember the exact timing of all communications. Nevertheless, their list of concerns seemed pretty fundamental, suggesting little in the way of early engagement.

    Thayer said asking each of Washington state's sixty-eight fairs to change their business plans in time for the fall "would have been difficult at best."

    "Fair planning is a year-round process, and, collectively, the fair season begins in April. Reworking the funding parameters to fit the diverse fairs’ business models would have changed the spirit of the funding and likely caused confusion for consumers," she added, before thanking the Legislature for its "ongoing support of fairs throughout the process."

    So that's it. They announced the goods before they could really deliver. And though they did help a bunch of middle-class families by giving their children a few more seconds to run away from mass shooters, making sure laborers have plenty of roads to build, giving teachers and other government workers pay raises, and strengthening the social safety net to catch people when they fall, they cannot, unfortunately, appeal to independent voters in the exurbs by saying they provided free passes for certain recreational activities. Alas.